Low-key King Conservation District vote set for Tuesday
There's an election on Tuesday, and you and about 1 million others in King County are likely to miss it. For the past 60 years, supervisors for the King Conservation District have been elected in relative obscurity.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Conservation District electionVoting information
All registered King County voters are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election for King Conservation District supervisor, Position No. 1, except for those living in Enumclaw, Federal Way, Milton, Pacific and Skykomish.
Polls will be open 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday in Auburn, Bellevue, Carnation, Des Moines, Shoreline and Vashon, and from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Seattle. For specific locations, go to: www.kingcd.org/new_ele_2010.htm
The candidates are: Mary Embleton of Seattle, director of Cascade Harvest Coalition; Mara Heiman of Auburn, a farmer, landowner and former real-estate agent; Teri Herrera of Redmond, Realtor; Kirk Prindle of Seattle, ecologist and environmental planner; and Max Prinsen of Renton, former appointed conservation-district-board chair and president of Save Habitat and Diversity of Wetland (SHADOW). For more on the candidates, go to: www.kingcd.org/elect/new_ele_2010-candidates.htm
There's an election on Tuesday, and you and about 1 million others in King County are likely to miss it.
For the past 60 years, supervisors for the King Conservation District have been elected in relative obscurity.
Last year, 2,757 people voted — fewer than one-third of 1 percent of eligible voters — in one race for supervisor of the district, which offers farmers and other landowners help in managing their land. That was a lot better than in 2008, when 198 people voted, or 1988, when 14 voters showed up.
More people might know about the district's annual elections and participate if King County Elections oversaw them, instead of a private vendor. But the unusual, low-key arrangement allows this small operation to save money — spending about $35,000 to conduct an election instead of about $1 million.
Conservation districts "all want more people to know about their elections, to participate and potentially to receive services from those districts. The sole barrier is how do they pay for it," said Tom Salzer of the Washington State Conservation Commission, which sets standards for district elections.
The chronically poor turnout belies the importance of an agency created after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to help farmers, ranchers and tree growers be stewards of their land in ways that produce dependable crops, retain soil and keep creeks and rivers clean.
In recent years, the conservation district has taken on additional duties, which include working with city-dwellers to protect bluffs, and restoring salmon habitat.
With 17 employees, the district spends most of its $6.5 million budget on projects such as improving wetlands or planting trees along salmon-bearing streams. It has no regulatory authority, offering help to landowners on a voluntary basis.
Two of the district's five volunteer commissioners are appointed by the Washington State Conservation Commission, and the remaining three are elected.
All registered King County voters are eligible to vote for those three positions, except residents of Enumclaw, Federal Way, Milton, Pacific and Skykomish, which are not part of the district.
Most candidate elections, of course, take place in November, under the auspices of county election offices. But Washington's 47 conservation districts hold their elections in the first three months of the year — a time when, historically, farmers were least busy.
Sara Hemphill, the King district's interim executive director, said running elections was "a huge burden" for the district and "threw them into a tizzy." So for the past three years the district has hired Bellevue-based Election Trust to conduct elections.
The district reduced the number of polling places from 13 last year to seven this year, cutting the election's cost from $50,000 to $35,000.
If King County Elections took on the job, more people would know about Conservation District races, through voter pamphlets and ballots arriving in the mail. The trade off is cost.
The King County Library System, which has significantly fewer eligible voters, will pay the county an estimated $1.5 million for last month's levy vote.
If conservation-district elections could be moved to the less-expensive November ballot, they would cost around $1 million, said Sean Bouffiou, county Records and Licensing Services finance administrator.
"Most districts have no dedicated source of funding [for elections] and for them to pay the high cost of a general-election ballot means they would be taking money from the programs that keep soil on farms and water clean for fish," Salzer said.
It would cost the King Conservation District proportionately more than cities or school or fire districts to pay for county-run elections because its annual fee of $10 per property is far less than the hundreds or thousands of dollars many other jurisdictions receive.
Not everyone thinks there's a problem with the way supervisors are elected.
Said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert: "Do you want to spend a fifth of your money — or whatever the percentage is — on electing the people or do you want to have them do the work?"
Lambert said the King districts' polling places are a welcome contrast to King County's vote-by-mail elections. "It's kind of quaint, actually. I like going over across the street and getting in line and getting the piece of paper."
State Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls and a member of the Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee, said he sees no need for an election overhaul. "If there was, I think [the districts] would have been here already, asking for guidance."
League of Women Voters chapters around the state are studying conservation-district elections after receiving a Tacoma-Pierce County League report on elections in the Pierce Conservation District.
"We don't really care whether it's an election or they're appointed," said Tacoma-Pierce League President Terri Baker. "We just want it done more openly."
Monty Mahan, director of the Pierce district, thinks change is long overdue — but acknowledges many of his peers don't share his view. "It's just undemocratic," he said. "That's the bottom line. There's no way somebody can tell me such a small group of people picking those who allocate funds is democratic."
Unless elections are put in the hands of professionals who don't have a stake in the elections' outcome and who can boost turnout, he said, "sooner or later there's going to be a big enough scandal, maybe in more than one place at a time, that we're going to be forced to reform."
To keep down the cost of county-run elections, he suggested replacing annual supervisor elections with votes every three years and moving the elections to November.
In the meantime, Pierce and King conservation district officials say they work hard to raise awareness of their work and their elections.
Last year's King district election drew a larger-than-usual turnout because of the tight race between property-rights advocate Preston Drew, the winner, and environmentalist and write-in candidate Mark Sollitto.
Five candidates are on the King district ballot for one open position this year.
"We've never had five candidates before," Hemphill said. "That's very exciting and heartening. We have strong candidates. ...
"Who knows? Maybe we'll hit 5,000 votes this time. That would be a coup."
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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